Window Into Wine: The Grapes of Autumn

May 3, 2012

Fall has arrived, and for American and European wineries, that means harvest time! Across the northern hemisphere, many wine regions are just wrapping up their harvest season while others are gearing up to start. This process can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, depending on the size of production and how uniformly the grapes ripen. In the weeks leading up to pickintg, workers in the vineyards are dropping clusters for flavor concentration, pruning back overgrown canopies, and measuring sugar and acid levels in the berries to predict the nature of the vintage. Cellar hands are meticulously sanitizing tanks, pumps, bins and presses to give the fruit the best chance to make superior wine. During this time, the anticipation slowly builds and winemakers pray for the rain, birds, and pests to hold off until the time has come to pick the grapes.
The unusual weather has made 2011 a chaotic year for viticulture across the board. Record high temperatures in Bordeaux led to one of the earliest harvests in the region’s history. California and Oregon are behind due to uncommonly cool summer months. And just imagine what Hurricane Irene has done to the East Coast wine regions.
But regardless of when the picking begins, harvest is always the toughest but most exciting and rewarding time of year in wine country. Most wineries welcome interns, often from all over the globe, and the whole team works long hours to get all the fruit in at its peak ripeness. Harvest always involves a lot of sweat and stress, but it also comes with an overabundance of fantastic meals, valuable friendships, and hard-earned pride in the vintage’s product.
The approach of fall weather finds any wine enthusiast excited about the varietals ideal for the season. While the heat of summer warrants bright steel-fermented whites and a D.C. winter seems to call for bigger, jammier reds and creamy Chardonnays, fall is the perfect time of year to choose wines that may not be as well-known, but that evoke the diversity of color, flavor, and complexity found in the foods and landscapes of the season.
The clearest parallel in a wine may be found in a classic Gewürztraminer from the appellation of Alsace, France. While Alsace is known for its crisp dry Riesling and full-bodied Pinot Gris that also pair well with autumn-inspired meals, the distinctive character of the Gewürztraminer grape fully embodies the spirit of fall. It has a color range from deep golden to almost coppery orange, and it’s one of the most aromatic varietals, showcasing a spectrum of flavors from spiced apple and pear to honeysuckle to lychee and nuts. Similar to Riesling, Gewürztraminer can be either sweet or dry, depending on the style of production. But all versions pair excellently with baked ham, roasted poultry, and meatier fish—think Thanksgiving!
One highly underrated and often misunderstood wine that finds an ideal stage this time of year is wine from Gamay (or Gamay Noir), the primary red grape found in the Beaujolais region of France. Gamay is usually a lighter-bodied wine in texture, but can be very full in flavor. A good Beaujolais from one of a handful of Crus-designated producers will display deep red fruit flavors, good acid structure, and layers of pepper and spice. Unfortunately many people only know the name Beaujolais for the marketing phenomenon of Beaujolais nouveau, a festival held in France in November celebrating the very first releases of the vintage. These are very light, fruity, and one-dimensional wines fun for the occasion but far from a high-end bottling. For a more refined and complex Gamay that pairs well with smoky meats and stews, look for the Crus domains such as Morgon or Côte du Brouilly, or you can also find comparable Gamays from a few Oregon producers such as Willakenzie Estate and Chehalem.
If you are looking for a red wine with more tannin structure and bigger fruit than a Gamay might offer, fall is the perfect time to start breaking out the Zinfandels. Mostly grown in a few California counties such as Sonoma and Amador, Zins are ripe-fruited full-bodied wines that can display rich earthy and savory flavors layered with blackberry, cocoa, cedar, and pepper, ideal to warm a chilly fall evening. A well-balanced Zinfandel will pair beautifully with heavier autumn dishes such as leg of lamb or traditional Italian lasagna.
Harvest time is always a time of celebration, whether it’s in the vineyard or in your own backyard garden. As the leaves take on their most vibrant and dynamic colors, use this opportunity to evolve your palate by exploring wines you’ve never tried. And as we say at the winery: wine is far better with fine food and good friends.
Caroline Jackson works for Chehalem Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, with a background in East Coast wine sales and winemaking. Visit her blog, Sips and Sounds, which pairs daily music selections with a wine or craft beer.

A Window into Wine

July 26, 2011

People have a rampant misconception that East Coast wines are sweet, simple, and unrefined. They say that our land is not suited for the growth of proper wine grapes. The truth is, we just got a late start.

We are California thirty years ago. The potential has always been there, but not until recently did we begin to pinpoint the “appellations” of the East, and the specific grapes destined to change the tide of Atlantic-coast wine. A rapidly growing contingency of our winemakers produces high-quality dry wines, and the world is beginning to take notice.

The wine revolution, whose ripples are just now reaching our shores, was sparked in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. As winemaking began to spread beyond the walls of monasteries, villages sprung up to support the new agricultural progress. Growers began to recognize which vines flourished under certain conditions, and gradually the viticultural traditions of each growing region became integrally linked to the facets of their developing cultures.

We often take for granted that Burgundy, France is acclaimed for Pinot Noir, or the Rioja region of Spain for Tempranillo, or the banks of the Mosel in Germany for sweet, juicy Rieslings. But there is a centuries-old understanding among winemakers of the dynamic relationship between the vines and the land, summed up by the French word terroir.

Terroir was a foreign concept in the United States until the early 20th century, when California began its own viticultural transformation. Winemakers in Napa realized that hardy Cabernet Sauvignon thrived in their sunny climate, producing intensely bold and tannic wines. A new wave of growers was unlocking the vast potential of their own soil.

These winemakers were pioneers of their era. They ripped out underperforming varietals, planted new rootstocks, tried new pruning methods, aged the wines in American oak barrels, all to produce wine that would rival the best of the Old World.

But it still took generations of experimentation—even one who spends forty years in this pursuit has only forty tries to create their masterpiece, and each vintage inevitably brings new obstacles to conquer.

Not until the 1970s did wine experts begin to view these “New World” wines with unclouded vision. It began with a now-famous blind tasting in which a few Napa wines were rated above their French counterparts. California winemakers, formerly looked down on as hillbilly farmers making lowly table wine, were now revered and respected.

Soon other regions appeared on the scene; by the 1980s the world was singing the praises of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and South African Chardonnay, among many others. And the door was left open for more to follow.

As it would seem, East Coast winemakers are on deck. There has been a great deal of hype in the growing number of wineries in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York. The most prominent frontrunners may be the wineries of the Finger Lake region in New York, who are being recognized for first-rate Riesling and Gewurztraminer.

Simultaneously, the Monticello area of Virginia has been persistently cranking out luscious Viognier and rich Cabernet Franc. And in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, where I work for a rapidly growing family-run winery, several winemakers have found the Burgundy-like climate to yield lovely Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A growing number of education programs for enology and viticulture on the East Coast ensure that these wines will only continue to excel in quality.

Yet East Coast wines are still largely considered third-rate (we’ll get into the reasons for that later). Although some individual producers have received notable acclaim, it would be unlikely to spot them in a store or restaurant outside of their state, much less on the Wine Spectator Top 100 list. The only way to combat this trend is to discover for yourself what the East Coast wine country has to offer.

There is a long way to go, but all it takes is a few stellar vintages to ignite the buzz. If you ask me, it won’t be long before “Monticello Viognier” will be as common a phrase as “Napa Cab” or “Australian Shiraz.” Now you can say you saw it coming.

Sip of the Day

Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling 2009
Available at Calvert Woodley, 4339 Connecticut Ave, N.W.

A vibrant and well-balanced wine from one of New York’s oldest and most renowned producers. With just a touch of residual sugar for softness and body, it’s crisp citrus notes in the front of the palate are followed beautifully with a light but lingering floral finish.

Caroline Jackson is the Assistant Winemaker at Blair Vineyards in Eastern Pennsylvania. She has a degree in English and a background in wine retail. Visit her blog, Sips and Sounds, which pairs daily music selections with a wine or craft beer.

A Window Into the Wine of Charlottesville, Virginia

While new wineries continue to pop up across the East Coast from New York to North Carolina, there is no region gaining more ground in both quality and recognition than the greater Charlottesville wine region. Farmers over the past 200 years cultivated the soil for fruit crops like apples and peaches, which set an ideal stage for what is now known as the Monticello American Viticultural Area (AVA).

One major factor in its success, according to King Family Vineyards owner David King, is precisely its lack of newness. Time has already proven many of the rolling Blue Ridge slopes conducive to cool-climate fruit production, and with the help of Virginia Tech’s viticultural research department and some recently acquired expertise, Monticello has lived up to the wine-growing potential that Thomas Jefferson foresaw there centuries ago.

Luca Paschina, Italian-born winemaker of Barboursville Vineyards, came to Virginia in 1991 after years working in Italy and California, to one of the worst vintages Virginia had seen in decades. After surviving that initial challenge he now produces some of Virginia’s fully ripe and high-quality grapes. “In good years,I really can’t see that much difference from the growing seasons of Piemonte,” says Paschina, whose expertise and education comes Piemonte, the renowned winemaking region in Italy.

While Monticello has the climate, soil composition and slope elevations favorable to growing a wide variety of grapes, choosing the varietals most suited to a particular site is the most important factor, Paschina explains. The clay-like soil common in Monticello is fairly rich in nutrients and a grape like the Cabernet Sauvignon may grow too vigorously. This in turn would produce flat, underdeveloped wines.

Over the past twenty years, an increasing number of wineries have been honing in on a few varietals that are poised to become the flagship grapes of the region.

While some producers continue to experiment with different grape varietals, Viognier and Petit Verdot, in addition to Merlot and Cabernet Franc, have produced excellent, complex wines that prove unique to their Virginian terroir (a term denoting the characteristics of the overall qualities of the land). For Monticello to gain acclaim as a world-class region within the international wine community, wineries must focus on these high-performing varietals and build an original niche in the market. As the region forms a cohesive identity, it’s reputation as the Napa of the East grows.

While the region lends itself to vital viticultural growth, elevations can go from 500 to 2000 feet with each site’s microclimate varying drastically. This means that while most wineries are evolving toward growing the same varietals, there is still a wide spectrum of fruit expression and winemaking strategy.

Paschina say that Monticello, unlike many other East Coast wine regions, has few “hobbyists” left, and is comprised of a large number of winemakers formally educated. This concentration of expertise has produced wine comparable to that of Europe and the West Coast. “Making wine is easy; making good wine is quite complicated,” Paschina says.

Michael Shaps, a consultant for Virginia Wineworks and Pollack Vineyards, a producer of his own private label and the owner of a vineyard in Burgundy, France, brings old-world winemaking techniques with him when working with vineyards such as picking grapes earlier than usual to produce more a more elegant and balanced taste, as opposed to tannic or jammy.

While Shaps says he sees some wineries trying to follow the consumer-driven trend of New-World California-style Cabernets, the biggest producers in Monticello follow his more European-style philosophies. Jake Busching, winemaker and General Manager for Pollak Vineyards, sees each varying vintage as a new opportunity to express the distinctive character of that year’s fruit and its soil. Busching says that the nuanced differences from varying winemaking styles only benefit the diversity within the region.

As more consumers have discovered the burgeoning industry right in their backyard, wineries are able to employ state-of-the-art methods and improve marketing strategy because of the new capital. While necessary for greater acclaim, there are still many challenges and misconceptions that must be overcome.

As the volume and quality of wine continues to increase, the government of Virginia and the commercial and historical tourism industries facilitate growth for the wineries around Charlottesville. David King attests that there is still a large local market in Virginia and its bordering states that has yet to be tapped, and with the state legislators helping to promote local wines in more shops and fine dining establishments, consumers have more opportunities to support local growers.

“We sell everything we make,” says King. “Yet wine made here is only 4.5% of the wine consumed in the state. Our biggest goal right now is merely to make more wine.”

There are also several brand-new operations such as DelFosse Vineyards & Winery that dove into producing old-world style wines that found immediate favor with many of Charlottesville’s wine lovers. Michael Shaps see in-state sales as non-essential to the greater goal of international exposure and recognition, though in-state sales may provide a backbone for sustainability. Often, wine drinkers in other regions are unaware that the East Coast produces wine at all.

Shaps, Paschina and many other Virginia winemakers periodically stage blind tastings and enter into competitions where their wines consistently come out equal to if not better than their European counterparts. Yet stigmas are still rampant outside of the immediate area.

It inevitably takes time for vines to become expressive in a new terroir and then for the wine region to develop its own identity. Paschina, for one, continues to experiment with varietals, pulling out underperforming vines and trying out clones that may have similar growing patterns to the ones that have shown the most success. With innovators like this, Monticello will continue to evolve for decades to come. However, with the number of Viogniers, Chardonnays, Merlots and Petit Verdot blends now being produced by the wineries it is about time that the greater wine world began paying more attention.

“When there is more than just wine, when you have wine and great food, wine and a beautiful landscape, a history, a story,” Paschina says. “When you create this full experience, that’s when wine is best and most interesting. And here in Virginia, we have it all.” [gallery ids="99669,106134,106146,106139,106143" nav="thumbs"]

A Window Into Wine

For any industry to thrive, there must be infrastructure in place to support its maintenance and development. In the case of East Coast wine, an increasing number of educational outlets, quality control organizations, and winemakers’ consortiums are all valuable resources helping to bolster this quickly growing industry. There are many kinks to work out, however, if states like Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania hope to achieve as established a wine reputation as their West Coast counterparts.

Laws surrounding the production and sale of alcohol vary sometimes from county to county, and their complexities often prevent smaller start-up wineries from being able expand.

Pennsylvania’s Liquor Control Board is particularly archaic in its policies towards independent winery owners, often hampering the efforts of the ideal small business entrepreneur in a bourgeoning industry poised to bring revenue, employment, and tourism to a state in economic downturn. If anyone is wondering why people keep drinking California wines, I might point out a bill recently passed there setting aside $53 million dollars to further promote wineries, despite the state’s virtual bankruptcy. Although this sum seems a bit excessive, it is an example of how other American wine regions have benefited from the support of state institutions.

In Virginia, however, legislators have steadily begun to reform various agricultural and beverage control regulations to be more conducive to the wine industry. Simultaneously, Virginia Tech is on the brink of extending its viticultural degree to include an online program, making a quality wine education available to many more potential winemakers. In addition, Virginia’s wineries continue to find new ways to work together to evaluate and improve the quality of their products.

Virginia is now organized into six official AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas), a notable move towards industry coordination and quality control. This system of “appellations” is taken for granted in Europe, where strict regulations often dictate which varietals may be planted and how they are to be grown. There is much more freedom in the “New World,” but by grouping together certain areas with similar soil, elevation, climate, etc.— terroir, as they say in French—wineries can more effectively work together to develop the common characteristics that make their product stand out.

The majority of vines grown in Virginia are made up the world’s most popular grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay. In the past few years, however, some producers have built their reputation around varietals that they believe will set their region apart. In the Monticello AVA, for example, Barboursville Vineyards is thinking outside of the box. Set on the grounds of the beautiful Barbour Estate designed by Thomas Jefferson, Barboursville has planted Italian grapes such as Barbera and Nebbiolo, originally from the noble Piedmont region of Italy.

Though maybe not as deeply complex as some of the Italian versions, the relatively young Virginia vines result in well made, balanced, and elegant wines. Most importantly, they push forward the frontier, employing the kind of experimentation that leads to revolutionary discoveries. Also make sure not to miss their delectable Malvaxia dessert wine.

While Charlottesville has the hotter growing season mimicking that of Italy or Bordeaux, the gentle hills of Northern Virginia are cranking out some spectacular vintages of grapes that can benefit from its cooler climate and continental breeze, such as Viognier and Cabernet Franc. I was impressed with the soft fruit and spicy finish of Breaux Vineyards’ 2006 “Lafayette” Cabernet Franc, as well as the well-structured 2009 vintage from year-old Paradise Springs Winery, currently building a new tasting room and winery facility in Clifton.

Surprisingly successful in multiple regions, Virginia’s Petit Verdot has been gaining notice from many national critics. Petit Verdot is poised to be to Virginia what Malbec is to Argentina. Both Petit Verdot and Malbec were originially used only for blending in the “Old World,” but have taken to their respective soils to produce some impressive and complex single-varietal wines. With common traits often more subtle and earthy than the bold fruit and classic flavors of other East Coast reds, Petit Verdot may be an acquired taste for some wine drinkers; but as wine and food culture continue to blossom in the Mid-Atlantic metropolitan areas, customers continue to expand their palates with a wider range of varietals, cultivating an appreciation for the vastness of style.
As more wineries continue to pop up throughout Virginia, it will be a challenge to maintain the quality reputation and cohesive marketing necessary to continue to advance in the global market. However, with open forums of communication within the business, and a little extra effort in funding and support from local customers and government institutions, the perception of Virginia wine will be no different from any other respected region in the world.

Sip of the Day

Pollack Vineyards 2008 Petit Verdot

This wine is full of soft black fruits and rich earthy notes of bramble and spice. While some Petit Verdots ere on the side of harshness, Pollack’s effort displays soft tannins and a smooth finish as a result of careful handling and minimal barrel aging in 100% French oak. Let it aerate a bit before drinking and pair with a flavorful red meat such as leg of lamb.

Caroline Jackson is the Assistant Winemaker at Blair Vineyards in Eastern Pennsylvania. She has a degree in English and a background in wine retail. Visit her blog, Sips and Sounds, which pairs daily music selections with a wine or craft beer.

A Window Into Wine: We’re Just Getting Started

Winemaking is one of the fastest-growing agricultural industries in the Mid-Atlantic area. Due to the rapid mutual progression of viticultural expertise and the knowledge and interest from the regional consumer in food and wine culture, it seems like new wineries are popping up everyday.

Just in case you were thinking about quitting your salaried day job and following your passion for Pinot to join the ranks of budding winemakers, I’d like to address a few of the many decisions and risks one must face when embarking upon such a venture. Winemaking is not for the faint of heart; it takes a unique balance of unflagging diligence and zen-like patience, not to mention a shockingly large sum of capital.

As any winemaker will tell you, it all starts in the vineyard. It is an oft-quoted adage that one can easily make bad wine out of good grapes, but great wine cannot be made without exceptional fruit. There are many horticultural nuances that contribute to a well tended versus poor quality vineyard, but the first principal of viticultural potential is that of site selection. Although wineries may grow their own estate vines or buy grapes from several different vineyards, it is up to the winemaker to find sites with the best climatic and topographical characteristics possible for the chosen variety of grape.

The most influential factors are soil composition and drainage, length of growing season, and elevation and slope of the plot. Here on the East Coast, we cannot hope to emulate the hot, dry California summers, so it is essential that a vineyard has ample water drainage and maximum sun exposure. This means careful scouting and analysis before deciding where to grow or buy grapes.

With a source of fruit procured, the beginner winemaker is just getting started. Once the grapes get to the cellar, many parts of the process require highly specified and expensive equipment. When starting a new winery, it can be tricky to decide how ambitiously to plan; it takes a few years of vine growth to achieve full yields and therefore to know exactly how much wine you’ll be producing. This will then determine the number of tanks and barrels, the size of the grape press, the type of bottling set-up, and the sheer amount of man power and accessories needed.

For example, the winery I work for in Pennsylvania used a 1.5-ton capacity press in the rainy 2009 vintage for about 27 tons of grapes; the next year, we were certainly glad we had upgraded to a four-ton press when a healthy harvest yielded over 60 tons. The doubled production also necessitated about 50 new barrels. Some wineries on a budget may opt for alternatives such as oak chips, but a vinicultural purist sticking to barrel aging must then decide between the less expensive but often more aggressive American Oak or spending up to $1,000 each for what many deem the more elegant effects of French Oak barrels.

Another tricky issue for any fermented product is that of temperature maintenance. Most yeasts require an environment over 60 degrees to get started; then individual tanks may need to be cooled down once fermentation gets rolling. In addition, barrels may need to stay at moderate temperatures to go through secondary malolactic fermentation, while wine in stainless steel holding tanks should be kept cooler. This can prove to be quite a challenge without well designed architecture and complex cooling and heating systems.

Aside from choosing material resources, there are thousands of other small decisions that determine the outcome of the wine — how long to age, how often to rack, how fine to filter, etc. — and most will depend on the winemaker’s philosophy and stylistic goals. Do you have a winery that makes a wide range of styles and varietals, or a more boutique operation that focuses its energy on only one or two grapes? Is your goal to make a solid product that most people can afford and enjoy, or will your line-up consist of highly refined wines in smaller production at inevitably higher prices?

A winery’s overarching mission statement will also determine the set-up of the tasting room and the kind of customer experience it will attempt to provide. Are events at the winery mostly upscale dinners with some quiet jazz for ambience, or do you regularly see a bluegrass band on the lawn with some casual catering? It is imperative for any business to determine the personality it hopes to exude to the consumer, but it is especially important in an industry where the competition is growing at such a rapid rate.

As we’ve seen on the West Coast, it is possible for multiple wineries in a small radius to all flourish concurrently if each is able to target a niche in the market and then work together with their counterparts to provide a diversified experience within the common vein of shared terroir and regionalism. Similarly in the past few years, we have seen the success of the Eastern wine industry increase with the number of wineries – a good sign on the path to becoming the world’s next wine destination.

Sip of Day
Paradise Springs Viognier
13.2 % Alc, $25

Paradise Springs is a brand new winery in the beautiful town of Clifton, VA. With two vintages under their belt and a new tasting room under construction, they seem to be taking all the necessary steps to increase in both quality and sales potential. This Viognier is surprisingly smooth and balanced, with notes of ripe white fruit on the front of the palate that provides body and richness without the residual sugar.

A Window Into Wine

June 10, 2011

If there is one tool most vital in propelling the East Coast wine industry towards a West Coast level of prestige, that instrument is education. This applies for both the consumer and the producer. As the next generation of winemakers gains a more extensive understanding of the science behind the techniques, the Mid-Atlantic States are producing wine of an increasingly high caliber. Simultaneously, the desire of the consumer to learn more about tasting, pairing, and international wine continues to spread, guiding the entire regional industry towards a more sophisticated focus.

In response to this progression there are more opportunities for wine education in the East than ever before. Because of the wide array of classes, programs, and certificates now available, it can be confusing to differentiate between types of training. Whether you are a potential viticulturalist, a sommelier-in-training, or merely hoping to feel a little more confident perusing a restaurant’s wine list, there are finally accessible programs geared to your goals.

In 1880, the University of California Davis launched the very first accredited Viticulture and Enology program in the United States, only to be shut down in 1919 with the establishment of Prohibition. The department was reinstated in 1935, and for years it remained the only prominent resource for a comprehensive education in winemaking or grape growing within the US. Gradually, a few other West Coast institutions also began offering degrees in the field, but it wasn’t until 2008 that Cornell reformed its long-running viticultural research division into its own freestanding department, becoming the first Enology and Viticulture degree in the East. This was an essential step not only for the education of future winemakers, but also in the acquisition of expertise and the establishment of a venue for research specific to local conditions.

The quality of East Coast wine has greatly benefited from this resource, directly apparent in the advancement of vineyard management and winemaking techniques. But only recently have other Universities in the region begun to offer alternative programs. Virginia Tech now offers an Enology and Viticulture concentration within its Food Science and Technology department, and just this year the community college in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania began accepting students to its new undergraduate department. Most programs now offer online extension courses as well.

If you are more interested in the sale, service, or discerning consumption of wine, there are often multiple privately owned wine schools in any metropolitan area. There are a few “academies” right in D.C. that offer a variety of educational opportunities for anyone, from the casual buyer to the aspiring professional. Both the Capitol Wine School and the Washington Wine Academy offer classes connected with the WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust), which provides a widely accepted measure of proficiency. Generally, one can earn WSET Certificates at the Intermediate or Advanced Level, which can be helpful if you hope to get a job at a restaurant or wine retail store.

These programs usually charge an entry fee specific to the certificate level you’re aiming for, and then may have classes once a week or so for several weeks. The classes may start out with more general tutorials on global wine regions and basic winemaking knowledge, but will progress toward more specific tasting comparisons of different varietals and styles.

Additionally, the WSET also offers a more official Diploma, which is often considered the first step towards becoming a Master of Wine. This distinction is achieved by only a handful of people in the world and takes an additional minimum of three years to complete. The Master of Wine exam is said to be an arduous ordeal of essays and taste tests, including a section that requires the participant to name the vintage, region, and exact producer of several wines in a completely blind tasting—a sort of ultimate wine challenge.

Sounding a little beyond your personal ambition? Are you looking for a more recreational atmosphere, where you might choose to learn about a selected topic now and then? As the industry recognizes the growing consumer interest in a deeper understanding of wine, some wine-focused restaurants and boutique retail shops are offering their own classes and educational events. One example can be found at the Philadelphia-based wine, beer and tapas bar Tria. With three locations downtown as well as a separate “classroom” location, Tria’s staff hosts educational seminars often focused on a different varietal each week, as well as periodic food-pairing classes and specialty flight tastings that you can sign up for in packages or as a one-time experience.

Despite this plethora of available outlets, the best place to start is at your local wine shop or wine bar. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I guarantee you that most wine industry employees live for those moments when they can “nerd out” over their passion for vino with a customer who is genuinely interested in the subject. People get into the business because they love to drink, learn about, and talk about wine—they’re sure not in it for the money, I can tell you that much—and I think you may be surprised at the enthusiasm and aptitude that may be sitting right there at the corner store.

Caroline Jackson now works for Chehalem Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She has a degree in English and a background in East Coast wine sales and winemaking. Visit her blog, Sips and Sounds, which pairs daily music selections with a wine or craft beer.